As a kid, I discovered the genius of Bob Dylan via my uncle’s record collection, which included Another Side of Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, Blood on the Tracks, and Desire. But when my uncle invited me to see Dylan play this week at Terminal 5, I hesitated. How would Dylan the Man measure up to Dylan the Legend? But what was I going to do instead, watch Monday Night Football?
In person, Dylan barely resembles or sounds like the curly headed hipster on my uncle’s albums. Imagine a dapper diminutive grandfather with emphysema backed by a band of bluesmen half his age. For most of the show, he stands at an organ perpendicular to the audience, mostly people in their 30s and 40s. Every few songs, he huffs into a harmonica or plays guitar with equal parts sloppiness and passion. Never a master of melody, he abandons pitch in favor of a spoken-word chant with a huskiness that makes Tom Waits sound like Minnie Mouse. Meanwhile he jettisons the meter of his songs and adopts a ratatat rhythm, dropping words like third period French. He could almost be reading from the cue cards he flipped in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back.
Rather than perform a jukebox musical, Dylan deconstructs and rearranges his material on stage, an aesthetic reinforced by Monday’s opening song, “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking.” The rest of the set included reworked versions of classics such as “Desolation Row” and “Highway 61 Revisited” as well as newer ones like “Summer Days” from Love and Theft and “Thunder on the Mountain”from Modern Times, a song that name checks Alicia Keys as a symbol of a new generation of musicians.
To Dylan’s credit, he hires the right people. When his band gels, as they did halfway through Monday’s set, their take on the blues is a lesson in tastefulness and musicianship, especially Charlie Sexton on lead guitar and Donnie Herron on pedal steel. (His entourage also includes a team that combs the web for people who post his music, including his latest bootleg, The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964)
Sure, Dylan is a shadow of his former self. But nobody asks a 69-year-old pitcher to throw the same fastball he hurled in his glory days. Nobody expects a 69-year-old to make love like a young man. Why expect eternal youth from a 69-year old rock star? When Dylan closed Monday’s show with “Like a Rolling Stone,” the crowd screamed along “How Does it Feel?” Unlike the singer, the existential question shows no sign of age.
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiatrist. All he really wants to do is baby be friends with you.